Crisis Management: The Case of the Aggressive OCS Investigator
By Allen Clendaniel of Sedor, Wendlandt, Evans & Filippi, LLC
Part three of a series on Interacting with the Outside World – School District Style.
An OCS Investigator walks into the elementary school office and aggressively demands to interview a student at the school. The school secretary goes and gets the principal. The OCS Investigator asserts that he needs to interview the student immediately. The principal hesitates. The student’s parents are very involved in the school. They are also prominent members of the community. The principal calls the Superintendent, but the Superintendent is unavailable. The OCS Investigator says that the child’s safety is at stake and he needs to interview the student now. He also says that no one from the school district can call the student’s parents.
What should the school administrator do?
Sometimes schools are the site of dramatic incidents that capture headlines, but school administrators frequently deal with crises that do not grab media or public attention. A significant part of managing and responding to these types of crises is having consistent procedures and training for school employees.
The State of Alaska’s Office of Child Services (“OCS”) receives more than 1500 reports of child abuse or neglect per month. Under Alaska Statute § 47.17.010, OCS must assess reports of child abuse or neglect in Alaska. OCS must also take the necessary actions to prevent further harm to the child.
OCS investigators routinely ask school administrators to interview a child at school. In some instances, law enforcement officers also conduct the interviews. The same legal requirements apply to law enforcement agencies and officers that apply to OCS and its investigators. Under Alaska Statute § 47.17.027, an OCS investigator is required to provide written certification to the school administrator that it is in the best interest of the child to conduct an interview of the child at school. If the investigator or officer provides that certification, the school administrator must permit the student to be interviewed at the school. The school administrator cannot notify the parents or guardians about the interview. Alaska Statute § 47.17.027(a). A school official must be present for the interview unless the child objects or OCS determines that the presence of a school official will interfere with the investigation.
Immediately after conducting the interview with the student, OCS must notify the child that the parent or guardian will be notified. Then OCS must make every reasonable effort to notify the parent or guardian unless notifying the parent or guardian would endanger the child. Alaska Statute § 47.17.027(a). School officials must not notify parents about the interview or investigation. That is OCS’s responsibility. School officials are prohibited from disclosing any information learned during the interview. Any school employee that discloses such information can be prosecuted for a class B misdemeanor criminal offense. This includes telling the child’s parents about the interview.
It is critical that the school districts train school administrators about how to effectively respond to OCS interview requests. School administrators must demand written certification from the OCS investigator. Written certification protects the school district from liability for allowing an unauthorized interview of a child. School administrators must also be trained to keep the interview confidential.
In the case of the aggressive OCS Investigator, the school administrator should ask for the OCS investigator for the required written certification. If it is not provided, the school administrator should not permit the interview to occur at school. If it is provided, the school administrator should participate in the interview, unless the OCS Investigator directs otherwise. The school administrator should not notify the parents before or after the interview. The school administrator must also keep the interview information confidential.
Read the entire series on Interacting with the Outside World – School District Style
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The views expressed here are the writer’s and are not necessarily endorsed by the Association of Alaska School Boards. AASB welcomes diverse perspectives and civil discourse. To submit a Guest Column for consideration, see our Guest Column Guidelines and email your 400-1000 word submission HERE.